Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

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Tag: Habermas

Beyond Privacy: Articulating the Broader Harms of Pervasive Mass Surveillance


I’ve published a new paper titled “Beyond Privacy: Articulating the Broader Harms of Pervasive Mass Surveillance” in Media and Communication. Media and Communication is an open access journal; you can download the article from any location, to any computer, free of cost. The paper explores how dominant theories of privacy grapple with the pervasive mass surveillance activities undertaken by western signals intelligence activities, including those of the NSA, CSE, GCHQ, GCSB, and ASD. I ultimately argue that while these theories provide some recourse to individuals and communities, they are not sufficiently holistic to account for how mass surveillance affects the most basic elements a democracy. As such, I suggest that academic critics of signals intelligence activities can avail themselves to theory from the Frankfurt School to more expansively examine and critique contemporary signals intelligence surveillance practices.

Full Abstract

This article begins by recounting a series of mass surveillance practices conducted by members of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance. While boundary- and intersubjectivity-based theories of privacy register some of the harms linked to such practices I demonstrate how neither are holistically capable of registering these harms. Given these theories’ deficiencies I argue that critiques of signals intelligence surveillance practices can be better grounded on why the practices intrude on basic communicative rights, including those related to privacy. The crux of the argument is that pervasive mass surveillance erodes essential boundaries between public and private spheres by compromising populations’ abilities to freely communicate with one another and, in the process, erodes the integrity of democratic processes and institutions. Such erosions are captured as privacy violations but, ultimately, are more destructive to the fabric of society than are registered by theories of privacy alone. After demonstrating the value of adopting a communicative rights approach to critique signals intelligence surveillance I conclude by arguing that this approach also lets us clarify the international normative implications of such surveillance, that it provides a novel way of conceptualizing legal harm linked to the surveillance, and that it showcases the overall value of focusing on the implications of interfering with communications first, and as such interferences constituting privacy violations second. Ultimately, by adopting this Habermasian inspired mode of analysis we can develop more holistic ways of conceptualizing harms associated with signals intelligence practices than are provided by either boundary- or intersubjective-based theories of privacy.

Download the Paper

Photo credit: Retro Printers by Steven Mileham (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On a Social Networking Bill of Rights

I attended this year’s Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference and spent time in sessions on privacy in large data sets, deep packet inspection and network neutrality, the role of privacy in venture capital pitches, and what businesses are doing to secure privacy. In addition, a collection of us worked for some time to produce a rough draft of the Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights that was subsequently discussed and ratified by the conference participants. In this post, I want to speak to the motivations of the Bill of Rights, characteristics of social networking and Bill proper, a few hopeful outcomes resulting from the Bill’s instantiation and conclude by denoting a concerns around the Bill’s creation and consequent challenges for moving it forward.

First, let me speak to the motivation behind the Bill. Social networking environments are increasingly becoming the places where individuals store key information – contact information, photos, thoughts and reflections, video – and genuinely becoming integrated into the political. This integration was particularly poignantly demonstrated last year when the American State Department asked Twitter to delay upgrades that would disrupt service and stem the information flowing out of Iran following the illegitimate election of President Ahmadinejad. Social networks have already been tied into the economic and social landscapes in profound ways: we see infrastructure costs for maintaining core business functionality approaching zero and the labor that was historically required for initiating conversations and meetings, to say nothing of shared authorship, have been integrated into social networking platforms themselves. Social networking, under this rubric, extends beyond sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and encapsulate companies like Google and Yahoo!, WordPress, and Digg, and their associated product offerings. Social networking extends well beyond social media; we can turn to Mashable’s collection of twenty characteristics included in the term ‘social networking’ for guidance as to what the term captures:

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